Tag Archives: fossil fuels

A fossilized vision of the future

 

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As the planet continues to warm, the battles lines in the debate over the causes continue to retrench and harden.

Where once climate science informed popular understanding about carbon dioxide emissions from human industry, and the effect these have had on average global temperatures over the past century, now this research is being hijacked by two diametrically opposed ideological camps bent on formulating fundamentally irreconcilable solutions to the present crisis.

On the one hand, the rising tide of environmental radicalism argues that the only way to save the world from ecological catastrophe is to abandon every mine and every drill. “Leave the carbon in the ground, where it belongs,” the mantra goes. “We must become clean and renewable; and we must do it now.”

It’s a nice, even necessary, idea. But it fails to recognize the essential truth about global society’s dependence on the stuff: It’s cheap and addictive. Virtually nothing we do or consume is unaffected by oil, gas and coal. Going cold turkey overnight is simply no option.

On the other hand, the burgeoning call for more drilling, more mining posits that fossil fuels are the glue that binds civilizations together. Without them, the argument goes, humanity will simply devolve into brutal clans forever warring over scarce resources; after all, internationalism is predicated on more or less equal access to the same suite of energy resources.

This, too, can be persuasive. Still, the reasoning also conveniently ignores the inconvenient truth of our shared predicament: Science indisputably proves that our time plundering the earth for cheap sources of energy is running out; sooner or later our industrial habits will make much of the planet uninhabitable.

In either scenario, the outcome is disastrously similar: millions will die and millions more will become economic refugees, merely waiting to die.

To avoid the coming zombie apocalypse, there is, of course, a third option: We could start using our minds (which are, I am reliably informed, in great abundance) and stop flapping our gums from the ramparts of our two fortresses of solitude.

If we can’t quit fossil fuels altogether, and we can’t live with them as we do today, then why don’t we stop thinking about them as commodities to burn and begin to appreciate them as strategic assets to deploy in the effort to build a largely clean, broadly renewable future?

In other words, use them as the feedstock for new manufacturing technologies that more effectively capture and distribute in-situ wind, solar and tidal sources of energy. Use them to power research into cleaner forms of short- and long-range transportation systems. Use them to, in effect, eliminate them as anything but the necessary evils they are for advanced research and development.

To some extent, this process is already underway in countries that maintain offshore drilling operations and yet pull as much as a third of their non-locomotive energy from clean, renewable sources.

Lamentably, it’s not underway in any convincing fashion in Atlantic Canada. New Brunswick may possess one of the world’s greatest wind resources, but its infrastructure woefully lags its renewable energy potential. Thanks to its high concentration of universities and advanced institutes, this province could become a living laboratory for this type of urgent research, the results of which might actually spark a durable, sustainable economic development boom with global consequences.

Naturally, this would require the sort of foresight, vision and collaborative determination we rarely witness in this province.

But without this resource available to policy makers, politicians, industry representatives, and environmentalists, our fossilized vision of the future is secure.

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Our increasingly dull song of praise for oil

You can just smell the methane

You can just smell the methane

One public page of the member-driven website, Geo-Help Inc., which bills itself as “The Virtual Geology Department providing Geological Expertise and Services to the Oil and Gas Industry in Canada,” offers a collection of quotes that reaffirms man’s (though, interestingly, not even one woman’s) abiding love affair with liquid, black gold down through the decades.

Odes have been written to exalt the substance, including this one, sponsored by Seneca Oil and published in 1850:

“The healthful balm, from Nature’s secret spring/ The bloom of health, and life, to man will bring/ As from her depths the magic liquid flows/ To calm our sufferings, and assuage our woes.”

Others, like Kansas geologist Wallace Pratt (1885-1981), also recognized the allure when he said, “Where oil is first found is in the minds of men.” Men, presumably, like American industrialist J. Paul Getty (1892-1976) who once declared that his formula for success was to “rise early, work hard, strike oil.”

The quotes are not uniformly laudatory. One describes oil as “the excrement of the devil.” Another complains, “You can’t get the grease without a lease.”

And some are way off the mark, as is one attributed to the Director of Anglo Persian Oil Company who, in 1926, observed, “Saudi Arabia appears devoid of all prospects for oil.”

Historically, though, our preoccupation with the stuff has been, until quite recently, laced with positive connotations. And this strikes me as somewhat paradoxical, because unless you happen to be an industry executive or petroleum geologist, the chances are very good that you, like me, find oil to be. . .well, pedestrian.

Or, if you will pardon the pun, boring.

Whenever a fixation becomes mundane, it has a tendency to subdue the other faculties of mind – imagination, ingenuity, creativity – that can, quite often, improve social, political and economic conditions.

This might help explain New Brunswick’s current circumstances. The rut the province is in – fiscally, commercially, even demographically – could well be related to, if not actually derive from, our single-minded focus on the promise of a pipeline from Alberta’s oil patch and the putative promise (and danger) of a fully functioning shale gas industry in the future.

I would never suggest that we should dismiss these projects for the sake of our becoming less tedious people. But it might profit us to pull our heads from the sand and take a look at what other jurisdictions around the world are doing with energy development. (A well-known writer – though, his name escapes me – on the industry from, of all places, Calgary made a similar observation on New Brunswick CBC Radio’s rolling-home show last week).

Science Daily reports, “It’s less costly to get electricity from wind turbines and solar panels than coal-fired power plants when climate change costs and other health impacts are factored in, according to a new study published in Springer’s Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences.

“In fact – using the official U.S. government estimates of health and environmental costs from burning fossil fuels – the study shows it’s cheaper to replace a typical existing coal-fired power plant with a wind turbine than to keep the old plant running. And new electricity generation from wind could be more economically efficient than natural gas.”

Meanwhile, also according to Science Daily, “High school and college students got a recruiting call. . .to join the Solar Army and help solve one of the 21st century’s greatest scientific challenges: finding the dirt-cheap ingredients that would make sunlight a practical alternative to oil, coal and other traditional sources of energy.

‘Enough sunlight falls on Earth in one hour to provide all of the world’s energy – for 7 billion people – for an entire year,’ said Harry B. Gray, Ph.D., leader of the army. He is the Arnold O. Beckman Professor of Chemistry and Founding Director of the Beckman Institute at the California Institute of Technology. ‘If we can capture that energy and use it to split water, burning coal, gasoline and other fossil fuels will be history.’

Maybe. Maybe not. But even the thought is inspirational – which is more than I can say about oil.

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